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The International Writers Magazine: The Amazing Canadian Chamber Music Festivals

Summer of Chamber Music in Ottawa
• Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger
For four weeks every summer, Ottawa, the staid Canadian capital on the Rideau River, is transformed into a magical setting for about one hundred and fifty chamber music concerts.

Violins Ottawa

Beginning in early July and lasting for about a month, music is literally everywhere, not, I hasten to add, waltzes or Viennese operettas, nor the electronic kind, but, of all things, chamber music. This musical outpouring is a unique phenomenon for such a small north-American city with a population of less than one million.

Two chamber music festivals greatly enrich the Ottawa summer and make the city a major destination for music lovers. There is something here for all ages and tastes and the audiences appear to love the offerings.

The musical Ottawa summers date back to 1994 when Julian Armour, a Canadian 'cellist, founded the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival soon to become a major international event. By 2010, however, Armour's path led in another direction and to the creation of a second festival, Music and Beyond, slotted in somewhat earlier in July. The original festival now became known as Chamberfest and the name has remained until now. Both festivals are thriving and to the astonishment of the Canadian musical world, Ottawa appears to have room for both.

Ottawa does not have the great concert halls of Europe, no Musikverein and no Konzerthaus as in Vienna. Local churches, some large and ornate as Dominion Chalmers United, others small and more intimate, as St.Andrews Presbyterian, are the main venues for the music making. And St.Brigid's, a former Catholic church but now a cultural centre even has a basement for a cabaret which works quite well for light and humorous events, especially when accompanied by beer.

The summer musical activities began this year with Music and Beyond on July 5. The aim of this festival according to its founder, Julian Armour, is to present a wide range of concerts and events which go `beyond traditional chamber music and try to explore the links between classical music and other genres and art forms, such as the visual arts and dance”.


Straddling between the classical musical world and jazz is the well known American jazz saxophonist Brandon Marsalis who opened the festival performing both classical music and jazz in the same concert (July 5). Marsalis played Ralph Vaughan Williams` Concerto in A minor and, with the 27 string players from the National Arts Centre Orchestra conducted by Alain Trudel, the Concerto in E flat major by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936), a major figure in Russian music. After intermission Marsalis played with his jazz quartet. Marsalis was not the only jazz musician to perform in the Festival. On July 15, the renowned Montreal pianist Oliver Jones played with his jazz trio and with the talented young pianist Daniel Clarke Bouchard.

One of the great joys of this Festival was the music played on little known instruments. One of the most unusual is the theremin, an early electronic instrument developed by the Russian physicist, Leon Theremin. On top of a small cabinet, two antennas are at work, a vertical controlling pitch, and a round one the volume. The player uses hand gestures in the magnetic field to create the eery sound without touching the instrument.

In the 1950`s, the instrument became popular in science fiction films and was used to great effect for the sound of invaders from space and the ethereal thrum of approaching flying saucers. Arthur Hitchcock made use of it very successfully in the film Spellbound (1945) and it was also a feature of the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

The theremin has been used in a variety of unexpected ways. In 2011, in Tokyo, for instance, 167 musicians played Beethoven's Ode to Joy on 167 theremins placed inside Matryoshka dolls (this instrument is known as a Metromin).

On July 16, Thorwald Jorgensen, a Dutch theremin player, was featured in a concert called Theremin and Cocktails at the Diefenbunker, the secret underground complex built to protect the Canadian Government from nuclear attack. It is now the Cold War Museum but you can still stroll through the bunker and hear the music created in response to the tense era of the '50s. At an earlier theremin concert we heard an astonishing work by Canadian composer Daniel Medizadeh, The Awakening of Baron Samedi, about a Haitian voodoo spirit, Baron Samedi.

There was also a wealth of traditional chamber music in the Festival. The first of three concerts by the Vienna Piano Trio (July 10), for instance, began with Haydn`s Trio in G (Gypsy Rondo). Then came Venta Varga, a freely atonal work by the Spanish composer Mauricio Sotelo. Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht, op.4, is the well known piece originally written for string sextet and only later for piano trio. The evening ended with Mendelssohn's Trio no.2 in C minor, op. 66.

The New Orford Quartet, one of the best known Canadian string quartets also offered three concerts. In the first of these (July 6) we heard Ravel's Quartet in F major, then R.Murray Schafer Quartet no.1, and finally Brahms Quartet in C minor, op.51, no.1.
New Orford Quartet
Triple Forte One of the highlights for me was the July 16 concert by Triple Forte, a Canadian piano trio, playing Beethoven`s Archduke Trio in B flat major, op.97. Next came Kelly Marie Murphy`s Give Me Phoenix Wings to Fly, dealing with fire, desolation and rebirth. However, to one reviewer this piece sounded a “pulse-pounding barrage on the senses which left the audience drained”. The evening ended with Dvorak`s Trio no.4 in E minor, op.90, "Dumky".
chamberfest Chamberfest, the second music festival, began on July 24 with the Brentano String Quartet, stars of the original motion picture soundtrack for A Late Quartet. They played Mozart's String Quartet no.17 in B flat major, the Hunt, K.458, Bartok's String Quartet no.3, and Elgar's String Quartet in E minor, op.83.

On the following evening, in the first Festival Gala called A Far Cry, the orchestra without a conductor but with James Parker (piano) and Annalee Patipatanakoon (violin) performed Dvorak's Three Slavonic Dances, Mendelssohn's Concerto for Violin and Piano in D minor, MWVO4 and Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

On July 28, the centenary of the start of World War I, four pianists presented a concert entitled En Blanc et Noir, concentrating on works from this era. The pieces included Debussy's En Blanc et Noir for two pianos, L134 (James Parker and Hinrich Alpers) and Ravel`s Frontispiece and La tombeau de Couperin, a piano masterwork paying tribute to fallen friends killed during hostilities. Jon Kamura Parker's fierce new transcription of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was the last piece played.

There were also two Festival galas by superstars. Sondra Radvanovsky, the preeminent Verdian soprano (July 29), sang operatic areas and some of her favourite romantic art songs and Janina Fialkowska, the superb Canadian pianist (August 1) played seven of Edvard Grieg's Lyric Pieces, Schubert's Piano Sonata in E flat major, D.568, and four of Chopin's last major works for solo piano.

One of my favourite singers, Suzie LeBlanc, the wonderful Canadian (Acadian) soprano, gave a beautiful rendering of excerpts from I Am in Need of Music, based on poems by Elizabeth Bishop (August 2), the obscure American poet who wrote about the struggle to find a sense of belonging and the human experiences of grief and longing. In addition to Four Songs on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop by Christos Hatzis, Suzie LeBlanc sang Schubert's touching The Shepherd on the Rock. The concert also included the Suite Hebraique by the prolific Canadian composer, Srul Irving Glick.

London's Brodsky Quartet gave a splendid concert on 4 August which included Beethoven's String Quartet in F minor, op.95 (Serioso) and Mendelssohn's overwhelming String Quartet in F minor, op. 80. There was also the Purcell Chaconne in G minor and the hauntingly beautiful At the Grave of Beethoven(1999), by Karen Tanaka, one of Japan's most accomplished composers.

The Gryphon Trio performed Tchaikovsky's chamber masterpiece, the Piano Trio in A minor, op.50, the Ottawa premiere of R.Murray Schafer's Trio for Violin, 'Cello and Piano and two world premiers, Dinuk Wijeratne's Love Triangle and the stunning Candle Ice by Carmen Braden, a 29-year-old composer from Yellow Knife NWT, effectively recreating the sounds of melting ice of Great Slave Lake in the Canadian North.

Kerson Long The Big Night was on 30 July, the 20th anniversary celebration for Chamberfest. That evening we heard Russell Braun and Monica Whicher, clarinetist James Campbell, the Parker brothers, and the Gryphon Trio, among others. But the outstanding stars were three young artists from Ottawa, Bryan Cheng ('cello) and his sister Silvie (piano) , and the 17-year-old Kerson Leong, who gained international recognition in 2010, when he won the Junior First Prize at the Menuhin Competition in Oslo. On this night the young violinist dazzled the Ottawa audience with his unbelievable performance of Eugene Ysaye's Sonata for Solo Violin in D minor, op.27, no.3, “Ballade”.

Now that the music has stopped, I feel like Cinderella after the ball- the magic has gone. The city just recently so full of joyous music now sits again quietly looking on. But the enchantment will return in just 10 months when Ottawa springs to life once more to the sounds of chamber music on its streets, in its galleries and in its churches. Come and hear for yourselves!

© Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger September 2014

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